Almost all New Zealand railways began as suburban lines, which once operated in Christchurch, Dunedin and Invercargill, as well as in Auckland and Wellington – the only cities with suburban services in the early 21st century.
Wellington suburban trains
In 2016 Wellington had the highest suburban train use in New Zealand, on a per capita basis. The main commuter lines servicing the city were part of the wider intercity rail network:
- the main Wairarapa line through Upper Hutt
- the main trunk line as far as Waikanae
- the Johnsonville line.
The Melling line also runs from Wellington, up the western side of the Hutt Valley to the Melling station.
Wellington–Hutt Valley trains
A train service from Wellington to the Hutt Valley was first introduced in 1874. Workers’ fares were introduced in 1897 to encourage commuters. The success of these led to New Zealand Railways introducing similar fares in other cities in 1899. To allow for increasing patronage a number of Wellington’s rail lines were double-tracked between 1905 and 1911.
In the mid-1950s the line from Wellington to Wairarapa was re-routed from the western side of the Hutt Valley to the eastern side, to provide a service to the state housing areas built there after the Second World War. The line on the western side remained in use but ended at Melling.
Steam trains were used until the mid-1950s, when electric units were introduced. New, improved electric units were imported from Hungary in 1981, and from South Korea in the early 2010s. Some diesel-hauled commuter trains have been used on lines from Masterton and Palmerston North.
Auckland suburban trains
The Auckland suburban network also depends largely on the two rail lines used for long-distance trains: the main trunk line to the south and the Helensville–Whangārei line to the north. The Eastern line heads out to Westfield via Glen Innes. There is also a branch line servicing Onehunga; this was closed in 1973, but reopened in 2010.
The gradual decline in rail commuter numbers in the last quarter of the 20th century suddenly reversed in the first decades of the 21st century. Auckland’s rail commuters rose from 3.2 million in 2002/3 to 13.9 million in 2014/15 – a year when Wellingtonians made around 12 million rail journeys.
There are no rail services to Takapuna and the North Shore because of the lack of rail provision on the Auckland Harbour Bridge, the main land link between the North Shore and the city.
The Auckland suburban lines were not electrified as they were in Wellington. Steam locomotives were still in use in the early-1960s, when they were replaced by diesel locomotives, and diesel units were not introduced until 1993.
In the early 21st century Auckland’s rail network was undergoing significant redevelopment following ongoing traffic congestion problems in the city. In 2003 the Britomart Transport Centre was opened, providing a central terminus for services. Track duplication improved the frequency and timing of trains. Significant improvements in infrastructure and services were undertaken in the 2010s. New Spanish-built electric units were introduced from 2014, helping boost Auckland's rail patronage above Wellington's.
South Island suburban trains
Christchurch’s main suburban service, from the city to Lyttelton, was withdrawn in 1972 after use had dwindled to a mere busload of passengers. Dunedin’s services ran to Port Chalmers and south to Mosgiel. Declining passenger numbers led to the service closing in December 1982. Workers’ trains and school trains formed the main suburban services between Bluff and Invercargill, but declining passenger numbers saw services closed in 1967.